Perhaps there is some person with talents to rival those of Annabel Crabb. Perhaps there is one who could radiate that Crabb-type credible warmth on TV. In the unlikely case such a genial authority exists, they shall not serve Our ABC — that Australian organisation now so estranged from Australian reality, it pretends its new pretend dress-up show Back in Time for Dinner is “factual” programming. No. They shall command all of us on Earth, should this planet survive liberalism to a liberal dystopian future.

Let’s not consider the propagandist potential of Chairman Crabb, but look back instead at last night’s debut of that “factual” moment you sensibly elected to miss.

In its commitment to brave and uniquely Australian storytelling, the ABC purchased the format of a BBC success. The difference between the national sensibilities applied to the high-concept becomes plain in log-lines alone. Compare: “One British family embark on an extraordinary time-travelling adventure to discover how a post-war revolution in the food we eat has transformed the way we live”; “One Australian family goes on an extraordinary time-travelling adventure to discover how the post-World War II revolution in the food we eat has transformed the way we live”. 

Actually, there is a difference, and it’s not only seen by the British refusal to give the collective noun “family” its singular verb. No. The UK versions, particularly those with deftly unpleasant Giles Coren as host, are not quite so driven by the chipper morality now absolutely central to ABC programming. History is understood only as advancement by our state propagandist.

The British program is made, as is its Australian iteration, for a vanishing middle-class. While the BBC is not above a posture that everything for everyone in the nation is fine (if you burned alive in the Grenfell fires, you were probably not working hard enough to seize British opportunities etc.), it is not so uniformly loyal to praise of the state as our local delusional lot. Coren can make a crack about British things being shit in the past, or shit in the present. Crabb seems incapable of any true critique of anything, save for the lack of women in high-powered employment.

She works very well at the ABC, then. She is known for her “progressive” attachment to elite feminine success. She is also known for her knack of appearing to talk about big political and social shifts without talking about anything much at all. She’s great on the policy class; she understands them and even, perhaps, likes them. As per Kitchen Cabinet, she is apparently wont to believe that if only we understand our politicians, by means of the “food we eat”, we can understand their policy. No. I am with Amy McQuire, here. There is no understanding the brutal, frequently racialised, withdrawal of basic rights over a nice puttanesca.

And there is no broad understanding of Australian family life in this new show either. The first family featured, the Ferrones, seem very nice, but the implicit suggestion that they are typical is very unkind. They live in a suburb with a median housing price of $1.25 million and, as we are often told, own All The Mod Cons those suffering a national and historic crisis of private debt could not.

Crabb’s neoliberal humanism — which holds that economic growth is always positive and always shared with social progress — is very ABC. This show is very ABC. It simulates reality — in this case, through a series of simulations of post-war family life — and believes it.

I will say that the sets are marvellous. They must have cost a bomb. The Ferrones inhabit some of the best period interiors yet seen on Australian TV. It’s not a slipshod 1950s visual of a kitchen made by an intern who had a few bucks to spend on eBay, but a very faithful, and appealing, physical world.

The world outside the home, however, has so little to do with history. Father Ferrone, whose own father formed part of the post-war migration wave, is putatively an Italian migrant worker. Mother Ferrone’s labour at home is reflected accurately: she’s chained to manual appliances all day. When she serves her husband dinner, she says, “You just sat at a desk all day”. If anyone can find record of a male worker newly arrived from Italy in white-collar work circa 1950, please, do let me know.

Things were very hard for women in 1950, who were, and I believe this is the terminology used, so recently “freed” by World War II to have “careers”. They were not free but compelled to keep the economy turning, and I don’t know if my nan would have considered her factory job as a “career”, or even as preferable to long hours of labour at home — which were required in addition to her remunerated work, in any case.

FFS. Why. Why does the Crabb ideology have to spoil something that might otherwise be fun, or even “factual”? The only sense we get of the racism a migrant would have encountered in the era is vague, and the only sense we get of the consequences of male full-employment policy is that women cook tripe.

Of course, there’s a bit of “isn’t it nice how we used to talk to each other before the age of the smartphone”, but that’s it for the era’s “history”. Throughout, we learn that things are just way better for women who can now “choose” to have careers — and would choose them more if they could have more bloody help from their men — and that economic growth and living conditions are now at the Ferrone $1.25 million standard.

Great set design. Full marks. Understanding of political economy? Zero. Belief that full employment is possible or that “careers” are just things anyone can have. One thousand neoliberal humanist points.

Ugh. You want factual? Watch Westworld.

Peter Fray

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